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Masculinity In Marlowe's Edward The Second Play

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3531 words Published: 4th May 2017

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Renaissance plays often have the tension between order and disorder as its underlying central issue, which is frequently expressed through the conflicts presented in love, loyalty, family relations, gender issues, and politics and law; and these plays attempt to reinstate order in the end by trying to dispose of those elements that cause the disruption of society. One widely celebrated author from this period, famous for his works Hero and Leander and Doctor Faustus, is Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe’s plays are similar in respect that the tension of order and disorder lies at its core, and an in depth analysis can be done of his play Edward the Second on all the previously mentioned themes. Marlowe’s Edward the Second questions the gender boundaries as presented in the early-modern period, and the notions on masculinity are closely intertwined with politics in this play, which can be noticed when focussing on ideas of masculinity with regards authority, sexuality, and women as presented in Marlowe’s play.

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Women, thus, were axiomatically perceived as being subordinated to men, especially concerning the financial and legal organisation of society. As the normal manner in which the head controls its body, the subordination of women was considered to be absolutely natural (hobby, 32). Domestically, the power rested with the father who was considered to be in command. Women were considered to be less rational than men and prone to emotional outbursts, and, consequently, they required male protection. (Traub, 129-130) According to Curtis Perry in Eros and Power in English Renaissance Drama, masculinity was stereotypically “associated with rational self-command and constancy” (6), and to handle public orders as opposed to personal desires (Shephard, 75), while effeminateness was linked to uncontrollable passion, spending to much time at home, and being dedicated to women in a subordinate rather than mastery position (Sinfield, 88). When discovered in men, these effeminate qualities instigated the downfall of social structures and positions as recognized in early-modern England; so, men should attempt to repudiate this effeminate behaviour and assert manliness. Furthermore, according to Stephen Orgel, “manhood was not a natural condition but a quality that had to be striven for and maintained through constant watchfulness” (Orgel, 29), which was done through manuals -for example Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier- that emphasized masculine behaviour without showing effeminate behaviour. Other significant features of masculinity included fighting and violence, rivalry, uniforms, being a father, and facial hair. This last trait separated men from the boys who “appear often in conjunction with effeminacy…[and] from the viewpoint of the masterful male they are both inferior” (Sinfield, 103). Also, men are physically stronger than women, and in an age where there is no technology as existing today muscles were required for accomplishing hard, physical labour, resulting in men being more dominant compared to women. Additionally, “manliness generally meant hanging out with other males” (Sinfield, 88) and, in the early-modern period social stability and order were governed by these homo-social bonds between men, for everyone was defined in relation to these. The social structure was constructed round systems of patronage and clientele between men, and many institutions required men to share domestic space with one another, especially beds. The relations between master/servant, or tutor/pupil for example were often specified in terms of an idealized friendship and were essential to society. “The emphasis upon the importance of manliness as a performed role and the centrality of the inter-male relations as the basis of social order places the men and the male body at the centre of society” (Hattaway, 482). Nevertheless, there were exceptions regarding the general gender-roles as mentioned above. Widows, for example, had some power in the domestic sphere and in financial businesses, because they had no man to arrange their businesses. Moreover, Queen Elizabeth was a woman with power and control, and was thus associated with masculine qualities. Although females with masculine traits were usually perceived as anomalies of society, this was not the case for Queen Elizabeth who is considered to be one of England’s most remarkable leaders.

In this period, the role of a king or queen was primarily a public position, and their authority and ability to rule the country was inextricably intertwined with their ability to govern themselves, which is a central theme clearly illustrated in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second. Kings were regarded as possessing ideal personal virtues that made it able for them to govern a country, which was seen as an extension of him/herself. Accordingly, personal self-control was a quality that was emphasized, because without self-control a king/queen was unable to govern his/her country. Perry observes that “a king [was] bestowed upon a people by God, and if God wishes to reward a virtuous people, their ruler will be given the personal moral excellence to control himself”(10). This implicates that a ruler should always have the best interest of the realm’s people in mind, respecting traditions and regulations, for the decisions made by a particular ruler and the manner in which he performs his office effects not only his immediate subjects, but “people of all degrees” of society (DiMatteo, 177). This is a notion stressed by King James VI/I in his book Basilikon Doron:

As he cannot be thought worthy to rule and command others, that cannot rule…his own proper affections and unreasonable appetites, so can he not be thought wordy to govern a Christian people, knowing and fearing God, that in his own person and heart, feareth not and loveth not the Devine Majesty.

(qtd. in Perry, 1)

Also, there was no clear distinction between the king’s personal life and private life, and, accordingly, the king’s/queen’s personal identity and morality was a public matter. Rulers were considered to be the moral representatives of their people, and were required to set a good example:

Kings, being public persons by reason of their office and authority, are, as it were set…upon a public stage, in the sight of all the people where all the beholders’ eyes are attentively bent to look and pry in the least circumstance of their secretest drifts. Which should make kings the more careful not to harbour the secretest thought in their mind, but such as in their own time they shall not be ashamed openly to avouch. (qtd. in Perry, 4)

As a result, rulers had to control their feelings and personal desires for the sake of the country’s welfare and were not entitled to give up everything for, for instance, love or personal desires. This also meant that friendships should be chosen because of “their counsel, nobility, and moral wisdom rather than for any more inward or subjective reason” (Perry, 4), because rulers distributed wealth and power among these friends, meaning that is was imperative that these positions of power were granted to capable individuals for the benefit of the country and its citizens. Consequently, this had to be done according to reason and not according to subjective feelings. When decisions were made according to misguided reason and passion, political tyranny was the result, for “the overthrow of reason by passion leads a ruler to violate the principles of moral rule.”(4) Moreover, “tyranny [was] often seen as effeminate and associated with moral weakness” (8) because it results from the ruler’s inability to control his/her aspirations. In Marlowe’s play, king Edward II is incapable of regulating his own desires and thoughts, and the imbalance and the violence ensued by the king’s affection for Gaveston reminded an audience just how important a ruler’s ability of self-control is. The problem issued by the nobility in the play of Edward having Gaveston as his favourite lies mainly in Edward’s decision to bypass them and to bestow to much power on someone of low birth without their consultation, which is in lines with customary political regulations, that it is possible for that person to overawe them. Laws were considered to be issued by God, and if God had wanted Gaveston to be that powerful God would have bestowed him with more power, and by granting Gaveston with that much power Edward denigrates the rest of his peers as stated by Lancaster:

In this play, Gaveston represents the unruly desires that threaten to overturn the rational social order of society. Gaveston believes that as the personal favourite of the king he will be empowered in such a way that “[His] knee shall bow to none but the King.” (1.19) However, Edward’s peers insist that the king must behave according to his impersonal duty to the public’s need by suppressing his own longing and desires and acting out of reason. Mortimer senior emphasizes this need to conform to public wishes in the play when stating: “If you love us, my lord, hate Gaveston.” (1.79) Here, Mortimer senior asks the king to distinguish between two kinds of affection. On the one hand, there is his personal love and intimacy he feels for Gaveston, which is ascribed to passion and personal desire. Contrastively, there is an impersonal kind of love determined by the public status in moral reason: namely the affection a king is required to hold for his peers. So, Mortimer senior asks his king to disregard his personal feelings for his duty and honour to the public. (Perry, 27) Nevertheless, Edward II is unable to accomplish this stating: “I will have Gaveston” (1.95) solely because “he loves me more in all the world.”(4.77). The result is disorder and chaos through which Mortimer Junior with the help of most of the other peers and Isabella obtain power. However, Mortimer Junior is revealed to be a figure of passionate political ambition chasing his own passions and desire; a tyrant who revels in his unrestrained power planning to advance his friends:

Essentially, Mortimer Junior can be likened in the end to how Gaveston began in the play: as a figure representing passionate misrule, characterized by political ambition. Nevertheless, Valerie Traub suggests that the conclusions of these kind of early-modern plays “tend to restore the social order. And because chaos is often expressed as an inversion of gender hierarchy, the reconstruction of order tends to reinstate masculine authority.” (132). In Marlowe’s play Edward III represents this masculine authoritative figure, and he demonstrates his competence through his willingness to punish Mortimer Junior and -more importantly- his own mother, showing that he is able to subordinate personal affections to that of public duty in contrast to his father Edward II.

Edward’s political inabilities are inextricably connected with his sexuality, and his inability to handle it accordingly causes the civil rebellion in the play, and, ultimately, his death. Male affectivity and the perception on sexuality in the early-modern period is difficult to describe, because “in a culture were intense male friendships and shared beds were the norm- it is almost impossible to distinguish between friends and lovers.”(Hattaway, 482) Accusations of being a sodomite did occur; however, this generally did not refer to explicit sexual acts but was used to accuse somebody for immoral behaviour and acting out of unruly desires. Moreover, sexual orientation was not perceived as being a significant part of someone’s character, but according to Perry “homoerotic desire was typically thought of as something that anybody could feel but that nobody should give expression to.”(7) Nevertheless, buggery was considered to be a crime punishable by death in this period. Sex was created by God for procreation and not for recreational purposes, making buggery a sin against God. In Edward the Second, the king’s homoerotic relationship with his favourite Gaveston is made explicitly clear from the start where Gaveston compares their relationship to that of the classical story of Hero and Leander, for “Leander’s nightly meeting with Hero after his swim across the Hellespont was specifically a union of sexual love”(Marlowe, xviii) which in return helps to assign Gaveston’s speech with an erotic undertone:

Sweet prince, I come; these, these thy amorous lines

Might have enforced me to have swum from France

And, like Leander, gasped upon the sand,

So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy arms. (1.6-9)

Another occurrence in the play where classical figures are evoked to remark upon the relationship between the king, his favourite, and their erotic intimate behaviour is uttered by queen Isabella, who remarks that that their affection is even greater than Jove’s affection for the beautiful Ganymede:

Like frantic Juno will I fill the earth

With ghastly murmur of my sighs and cries

For never doted Jove on Ganymede

So much as he on cursed Gaveston. (4.178-81)

Ganymede (a beautiful Trojan boy who was taken by Jove to serve as a cup-bearer on Mount Olympus because he fell in love with the boy’s appearance) came to act as an image for homoerotic desires and passions, and -in the early-modern period- he became to represent “the foul sodomite” (Orgel), epitomizing the essence of personal criminality and immorality. Surprisingly, in this play the problem does not lie in Edward’s need to have a male minion for his sexual pleasures, as remarked by Mortimer senior when stating that

The mightiest kings have had their minions:

Great Alexander loved Hephaestion;

The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;

And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped.

And not kings only, but the wisest men (4. 390-396)

However, Edward II and Gaveston’s desires “constitute a cultural threat because they insist that their homoeroticism not be divorced from their political and social identities” (Stymeist, 237), making it possible for Gaveston to gain access to power that he should never be able to obtain, and resulting in a “[h]omoerotic desire…[that] enables a subversion of social hierarchy” (Chedszoy, 256). Edward even places Gaveston next to him on the queen’s throne, underscoring the reversed, unnatural order present at court. Edward’s fatal mistake, moreover, rests in his unnatural devotion to Gaveston while ignoring his peers and -more important- his homo-social obligation towards them. This becomes apparent when Edward II refuses to ransom Mortimer senior when he is captured in battle, which triggers the rebellion against Edward II by his former peers, because they “fear that this failure of homosocial obligation could prefigure larger rebellion and disorder in the realm” (Chedszoy, 257). Edward II neglects his peers, his queen, and his country by focussing solely on the wellbeing of, and his love for Gaveston, depicting him as effeminate and incapable to perform his duty. However, in the end Edward II reasserts some of his masculine qualities, showing the ambivalence of his sexuality as portrayed by Marlowe. Edward shows that he is able to withstand the sufferings and torture he goes through, revealing a masculine strength: “He hath a body able to endure / More than we can inflict” (24.10-11). Furthermore, the historical accounts on Edward II explain that he had won his wife in a game of jousting. This game was a premier way of proving ones masculinity, because it is a physical and dangerous sport that required toughness, fitness, and an ability to control your horse; which implicated that you were able to control yourself (Flood, Women, Men, and Sex).

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Last, queen Isabella -one of the few women present in Marlowe’s play- plays a significant role and goes through the most radical transformation during the play which questions gender ideologies that existed at the time, ultimately resulting in her demise. As stated previously, women were stereotypically portrayed as acting out of unruly passions and desires, and they needed to be subordinate and controlled by men (Ryan, 132). At first, queen Isabella attempts to make her marriage succeed for her, and she endeavours at being patient and obedient wishing that that her marriage to Edward will turn out for the better and hoping that her husband will no longer reject her emotionally and sexually. Edward, in turn, does nothing to try and make their marriage work, for his only concern is about Gaveston, and he openly scorns his wife by saying to Gaveston: “Speak not unto her; let her droop and pine” (4.63), while Isabella “in vain…look[s] for love at Edward’s hand” (9.62). Chedgzoy observes that Marlowe

repeatedly indicates that for both Isabella and Edward, an orderly reconciliation of their competing desires might be possible, so long as it also reconciles the political and personal aspirations that shape Isabella’s dissatisfaction. (252)

When Isabella brings the news “that Gaveston…shall be repealed.” (4.323), a loving reconciliation between the two occur. However, this reunion is only ephemeral because Edward is unable to maintain a suitable balance between his erotic desires, his love, and his obligations as a king. Isabella connects Edward’s unnatural love for Gaveston directly with the country’s decline: “Edward, thou art one among them all / Whose looseness hath betrayed thy land to spoil / And made the channels overflow with blood.” (17.10-12). Consequently, Edward pushes Isabella in the arms of Mortimer Junior. However, Isabella is not merely an innocent woman desperately craving for love, for her adulterous behaviour is suggested from the start and her political ambition and sexual transgression grows more obvious when the play progresses (Stymeist, 246). She “draws on recognizing and exploiting the power [she has] over Mortimer that… will lead to adultery and murder.” (Fuller, 84) She transforms from being an obedient wife to an adulterous, manipulative, and murdering woman, for it is Isabella, together Mortimer Junior, who conspire to Edward and Kent’s execution. According to Stymeist, Isabella “becomes a nightmarish emblem of adultery and unnatural motherhood, allowing her son to be forcefully taken away by her paramour” (246-247). Her political ambitions and her emotional distress caused by her husband go hand in hand. Furthermore, Isabella transforms from being a scorned wife with feminine desires and passions to being a military leader showing masculine qualities. She is described by Edward as a warrior queen “whose eyes, being turned to steel, / Will sooner sparkle fire than shed a tear.”(20.104-105), and her union with Mortimer Junior offers her access to political power. In the end, both Edward and Isabella need to be eliminated to regain the natural order at court and in the realm, emphasized by Sara Munson Deats by stating that

Marlowe’s radicalism is ultimately contained by a pervasive disciplinary and admonitory ideology: “the roles that Edward and Isabella ultimately select deviate too markedly from society’s authorized subject positions, and so they must be sacrificed as scapegoats of their inflexible culture.

(qtd. in stymeist, 238)

All in all, in the early-modern period, men were stereotypically perceived as being the head of the family, to provide for them, and they were expected to act according to reason. Women were stereotypically perceived as being prone to emotional outbursts and acting out of desire and passion. These feminine qualities, however, can also be seen in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second in the male character of King Edward II. He is unable to rule his country because he is unable to control his personal feelings, causing a rebellion among his peers because he does not listen to them with regard to his personal favourite Gaveston. Edward’s political inabilities are inextricably connected with his sexuality -ambivalently portrayed by Marlowe- and his inability to govern himself for the sake of his country results to his death. In addition, his wife, after emotional and sexual neglect by Edward II, undergoes a radical transformation in the play, from being a humble, obedient, and rejected wife to being described as a warrior queen whose emotional distress and political ambition causes her downfall, restoring the order with Edward III on the throne.


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